The corporate music machine loves labels. R&B, rock, pop, alternative, rap -- they're those cute little genres record execs can't live without. They can also be lethal, closing minds to potential talent faster than you can say "neo-soul."
Want proof? Not long ago, veteran industry exec Steve Stoute passed on signing a hip-hop pianist named Alicia Keys because he couldn't label her gift. Critically acclaimed crooner Maxwell found his platinum-selling Urban Hang Suite shelved by Columbia Records for nearly a year as nervous suits wondered if consumers would shell out the dough for layered instrumentation and meaningful lyrics.
With the odds so stacked against creative spirits intent on doing it their way, Atlanta-based songbirds Slick & Rose are unwavering in their intent to change the game. They eschew short-lived trends and refuse to dumb themselves down for mainstream approval or join the ranks of their scantily clad, headline-grabbing cohorts. The duo flips hip-hop stylings into soulful ear candy in a way that has won them a multicultural fan base, from the head-wrapped divas of the Dirty South to Japanese converts conveying their approval in broken English.
"We are nonconformist," Rose says. "We like our own space and respect people being in theirs. You have to be comfortable in your own skin."
Adds Slick, "You gotta play your position and not be judgmental. People are starved for variety and we try to give them just that."
Mix the edgy chic of a NYC native with Jamaican roots -- Sabrina "Rose" -- with a Southern-fried sista from Alabama -- Nikki "Slick" -- and the result is the eclectic soul musings of Slick & Rose. A perfect combo of street meets sweet, the group cites Nina Simone, Mary J Blige, Ella Fitzgerald and Nikka Costa as muses.
Slick & Rose's first a cappella performances shook the stage three years ago at Jessica Care Moore's now defunct MoorEpics Cafe, a downtown training ground for upcoming vocalists, poets and musicians. But it was 2002's performance at Atlanta's Royal Peacock that served as their coming-out party and led to an invite to perform at the acclaimed "Black Lilly," an open mic-style event at Philadelphia's Five Spot club that promotes new, unknown soul music.
Soon to become the stuff of legend, the Philly show -- boasting pure vocals, a microphone and legendary Roots member Scratch riding shotgun as a vocal percussionist -- provided the jolt the burgeoning duo needed. It wasn't long before they found themselves performing with the Roots and Jazzyfatnastees in Japan as part of the Black Lilly Tour, and not much longer before they were rocking stages with the likes of Common, Joi, Black Cat, Vivian Green, Ledisi and one of the group's most vocal supporters, Phife of hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest.
Slick & Rose's underground hit is a song Rose says she wrote as a "hip-hop ode to Bobby McFerrin" one day in 1997. "I was at work," she says, "and the words and the harmony just came to me."
"Milk & Honey," a fluid display of the duo's vocal chops -- without background singers, stacked studio vocals or musical accompaniment -- best embodies Slick & Rose's genre-hopping style. Dripping with grit, soul and raw emotion, the song is nothing short of a millennium spiritual.
Though they continue to fall below the radar, Slick & Rose carry through in their mission to change lives one show at a time. "We live and create art," Slick says. "We are a small part of an intricate whole, and like others we are constantly exploring ourselves."